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Smith v. Spisak: Supreme Court Bars Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claim Based On Client's Admissions

Smith v. Spisak, 130 S.Ct. 676 (Jan. 12, 2010).

Underlying Criminal Matter

Facts:  Frank G. Spisak, Jr. was convicted in an Ohio trial court of three murders and two attempted murders. He was sentenced to death. He filed a habeas corpus petition in federal court alleging constitutional errors at trial. Spisak claimed that he suffered significant harm, in part, as a result of his counsel’s inadequate closing argument at the penalty phase of the proceeding. The Federal Court of Appeals accepted Spisak’s argument and ordered habeas relief. The State of Ohio sought certiorari and the United States Supreme Court granted the petition.

Spisak claimed that his counsel’s closing argument at the sentencing phase of his trial was so inadequate as to violate the Sixth Amendment. In his closing argument at the penalty phase, Spisak’s counsel allegedly portrayed him as “sick, twisted and demented…[that he] was never going to be any different”, and that even if Spisak was not legally insane so as to warrant a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity, he nonetheless was sufficiently mentally ill to lessen his culpability to the point where he should not be executed. Counsel further argued that “humanity” required the jury to weigh the evidence “fairly”.

Spisak claimed the closing argument was constitutionally inadequate because it (1) emphasized the gruesome nature of the killings and Spisak’s threats to continue his crimes, (2) understated the facts that demonstrated Spisak’s mental illness; (3) said nothing about mitigating circumstances; and (4) made no explicit request for a verdict against death.

Issue:  Did the flaws in counsel’s oral argument constitute valid grounds for Spisak’s claim for ineffective assistance of counsel? 

Ruling:  The Supreme Court found that there was no reasonable probability that a better closing argument would have made a significant difference, given counsel’s concerted effort to bring Spisak’s mental illness to the forefront by producing three experts who testified at length with respect to the connections between Spisak’s crimes and his mental illness. More importantly, the Court found that Spisak’s own damning testimony that Adolf Hitler was his “spiritual leader in a war for survival…[and] his duty [was] to inflict the maximum amount of casualties on the enemies…again and again and again and again” left no doubt that counsel’s closing argument did not make any significant difference in the jury’s decision to sentence Spisak to death. Furthermore, the Court noted that Spisak could point to no mitigating circumstances, and counsel’s references to “humane people” and “humane society” were sufficient appeals for mercy.

Lesson:  Any inadequacies in counsel’s arguments at trial may be rendered moot if the client’s admissions leave no reasonable probability that a more adequate performance by counsel would have changed the jury’s verdict.  

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Posted in: Criminal Law, Duties: Competence, Federal, Standard of Care